I had this conversation over and over before I really understood it. It goes:
It gets hand-wavy at the end, doesn’t it? I find that frustrating. These days I work on YJIT, a JIT for Ruby. So I can make this extremely NOT hand-wavy. Let’s talk specifics.
I like specifics.
Wait, What’s JIT Again?
An interpreter reads a human-written description of your app and executes it. You’d usually use interpreters for Ruby, Python, Node.js, SQL, and nearly all high-level dynamic languages. When you run an interpreted app, you download the human-written source code, and you have an interpreter on your computer that runs it. The interpreter effectively sees the app code for the first time when it runs it. So an interpreter doesn’t usually spend much time fixing or improving your code. They just run it how it’s written. An interpreter that significantly transforms your code or generates machine code tends to be called a compiler.
A compiler typically turns that human-written code into native machine code, like those big native apps you download. The most straightforward compilers are ahead-of-time compilers. They turn human-written source code into a native binary executable, which you can download and run. A good compiler can greatly speed up your code by putting a lot of effort into improving it ahead of time. This is beneficial for users because the app developer runs the compiler for them. The app developer pays the compile cost, and users get a fast app. Sometimes people call anything a compiler if it translates from one kind of code to another—not just source code to native machine code. But when I say “compiler” here, I mean the source-code-to-machine-code kind.
A JIT, aka a Just-In-Time compiler, is a partial compiler. A JIT waits until you run the program and then translates the most-used parts of your program into fast native machine code. This happens every time you run your program. It doesn’t write the code to a file—okay, except MJIT and a few others. But JIT compilation is primarily a way to speed up an interpreter—you keep the source code on your computer, and the interpreter has a JIT built into it. And then long-running programs go faster.
It sounds kind of inefficient, doesn’t it? Doing it all ahead of time sounds better to me than doing it every time you run your program.
But some languages are really hard to compile correctly ahead of time. Ruby is one of them. And even when you can compile ahead of time, often you get bad results. An ahead-of-time compiler has to create native code that will always be correct, no matter what your program does later, and sometimes that means it’s about as bad as an interpreter, which has that exact same requirement.
Ruby is Unreasonably Dynamic
Ruby is like my four-year-old daughter: the things I love most about it are what make it difficult.
In Ruby, I can redefine + on integers like 3, 7, or -45. Not just at the start—if I wanted, I could write a loop and redefine what + means every time through that loop. My new + could do anything I want. Always return an even number? Print a cheerful message? Write “I added two numbers” to a log file? Sure, no problem.
That’s thrilling and wonderful and awful in roughly equal proportions.
And it’s not just +. It’s every operator on every type. And equality. And iteration. And hashing. And so much more. Ruby lets you redefine it all.
The Ruby interpreter needs to stop and check every time you add two numbers if you have changed what + means in between. You can even redefine + in a background thread, and Ruby just rolls with it. It picks up the new + and keeps right on going. In a world where everything can be redefined, you can be forgiven for not knowing many things, but the interpreter handles it.
Ruby lets you do awful, awful things. It lets you do wonderful, wonderful things. Usually, it’s not obvious which is which. You have expressive power that most languages say is a very bad idea.
I love it.
Compilers do not love it.
When JITs Cheat, Users Win
Okay, we’ve talked about why it’s hard for ahead-of-time (AOT) compilers to deliver performance gains. But then, how do JIT compilers do it? Ruby lets you constantly change absolutely everything. That’s not magically easy at runtime. If you can’t compile + or == or any operator, why can you compile some parts of the program?
With a JIT, you have a compiler around as the program runs. That allows you to do a trick.
The trick: you can compile the method wrong and still get away with it.
Here’s what I mean.
YJIT asks, “Well, what if you didn’t change what + means every time?” You almost never do that. So it can compile a version of your method where + keeps its meaning from right now. And so does equals, iteration, hashing, and everything you can change in Ruby but you nearly never do.
But… that’s wrong. What if I do change those things? Sometimes apps do. I’m looking at you, ActiveRecord.
But your JIT has a compiler around at runtime. So when you change what + means, it will throw away all those methods it compiled with the old definition. Poof. Gone. If you call them again, you get the interpreted version again. For a while—until JIT compiles a new version with the new definition. This is called de-optimization. When the code starts being wrong, throw it away. When 3+4 stops being 7 (hey, this is Ruby!), get rid of the code that assumed it was. The devil is in the details—switching from one version of a method to another version midway through is not easy. But it’s possible, and JIT compilers basically do it successfully.
So your JIT can assume you don’t change + every time through the loop. Compilers and interpreters can’t get away with that.
An AOT compiler has to create fully correct code before your app even ships. It’s very limited if you change anything. And even if it had some kind of fallback (“Okay, I see three things 3+4 could be in this app”), it can only respond at runtime with something it figured out ahead of time. Usually, that means very conservative code that constantly checks if you changed anything.
An interpreter must be fully correct and respond immediately if you change anything. So they normally assume that you could have redefined everything at any time. The normal Ruby interpreter spends a lot of time checking if you changed the definition of + over time. You can do clever things to speed up that check, and CRuby does. But if you make your interpreter extremely clever, pre-building optimized code and invalidating assumptions, eventually you realize that you’ve built a JIT.
Ruby and YJIT
I work on YJIT, which is part of CRuby. We do the stuff I mention here. It’s pretty fast.
There are a lot of fun specifics to figure out. What do we track? How do we make it faster? When it’s invalid, do we need to recompile or cancel it? Here’s an example I wrote recently.
You can try out our work by turning on
--yjit on recent Ruby versions. You can use even more of our work if you build the latest head-of-master Ruby, perhaps with
ruby-build 3.2.0-dev. You can also get all the details by reading the source, which is built right into CRuby.
By the way, YJIT has some known bugs in 3.1 that mean you should NOT use it for real production. We’re a lot closer now—it should be production-ready for some uses in 3.2, which comes out Christmas 2022.
What Was All That Again?
A JIT can add assumptions to your code, like the fact that you probably didn’t change what + means. Those assumptions make the compiled code faster. If you do change what + means, you can throw away the now-incorrect code.
An ahead-of-time compiler can’t do that. It has to assume you could change anything you want. And you can.
An interpreter can’t do that. It has to assume you could have changed anything at any time. So it re-checks constantly. A sufficiently smart interpreter that pre-builds machine code for current assumptions and invalidates if it changes could be as fast as JIT… Because it would be a JIT.
And if you like blog posts about compiler internals—who doesn’t?—you should hit “Yes, sign me up” up above and to the left.
Noah Gibbs wrote the ebook Rebuilding Rails and then a lot about how fast Ruby is at various tasks. Despite being a grumpy old programmer in Inverness, Scotland, Noah believes that some day, somehow, there will be a second game as good as Stuart Smith’s Adventure Construction Set for the Apple IIe. Follow Noah on Twitter and GitHub
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